Sunday, July 19, 2009

FILMMAKING AS EXPERIENCE - The Art of Reaching into the Unknown

"Form is a character of every experience that is an experience. Art in its specific sense enacts more deliberately and fully the conditions that effect this unity. Form may then be defined as the operation of forces that carry the experience of an event, object, scene, and situation to its own integral fulfillment." - John Dewey (Art as Experience)

Borrowing an insight from Henry James’ tender-hearted brother, William, the American philosopher, John Dewey, conceived of aesthetic experience as a "double-barrelled" phenomenon, where experience is characterised by process and content – a doing as well as an under-going.

Experience in this sense is not equivalent to knowledge, for knowing is but one special kind of experiencing. What one does and what one suffers, or appreciates, as a result of what one does, is a cumulative process of reaching into the unknown and permitting the unknown to reach into us.

In working with the unknown, or the unconscious, knowledge is frequently an impediment to discovery; indeed, it may actually stop us from finding anything at all, other than what we already habitually know and have routinely made ours.

There is both comfort and a sense of safety in the nurture of mere knowledge, but it seldom if ever produces pure inspiration. More often than not it provides a handy way of walling ourselves up in a protective cocoon and arming ourselves with unassailable jargon by which we might fend off any attacks, intellectual, personal or otherwise. This castle-keep mentality is often grounded in an anxiety that very frequently amounts to little more that a fear of change.

Generally, Art cannot afford the luxury of vague, unreconstructed fear. This is not to say that fear is ever completely absent from the creative process, but it must never be permitted to intrude on the work in such a way as to warrant or validate stupidity. The essence of Art is, indeed, the absence of stupidity.

Applying this notion to dramatic screen storytelling, one might say that a successful screen story is the fearless realisation in us – as both storyteller and audience - of a meaningful (emotional) connection or interaction with the strivings of characters. Such an interaction compels identification. Their needs become our needs; their suffering, our suffering. When this arises out of a mutual and active interplay amongst ALL of the characters that contribute to the dramatic action, and respond in kind, the experience one has is no longer simply experience; it becomes - in Dewey's terms - an experience. “In such experiences, “ Dewey writes: "every successive part flows freely, without seam and without unfilled blanks, into what ensues; there are no holes, mechanical junctions and dead centres when we have an experience".

Dewey's words evoke that sense of completeness that is the consummation of the characters' shared and shareable journeys, including the parallel journeys made and undergone by the filmmakers (storytellers), the audience and the tribe/s (all of which are characters contributing to the enactment – and finding - of story).

For a story to consummate in a satisfying way - as opposed to merely ending or ceasing its activities - it must present "courses of action in which, through successive deeds, there runs a sense of growing meaning conserved and accumulating toward an end that is felt as the accomplishment of a process in which we – the characters - have emotionally invested ourselves. In other words, we have to care- all of us! When this occurs, the film story produces that unique quality that Dewey speaks of as an experience.

But an experience is not likely to occur in the finished product if it has not been present within the process that has led to that product.

Drama is founded on action - and in cinema, action is realised through IMAGE and SOUND. Sound and image, however, no matter how loud or explosive, are helpless to achieve dramatic intensity unless they are guided by a fundamental grammar that is organic to the language that is drama, and expresses itself though dramatic storytelling. When informed by this grammar, the selection, weight and ordering of the images and sounds convey more than what we actually see and hear. This is why I often speak of cinema as “the art of the invisble”, for it works best when it employs the grammar in such a way as to allow the logic to imply emotions, thoughts and drives that are never literally stated. In allowing the audience a space to act (i.e.: co-create the vision out of the subtext) the story or aesthetic experience of said story prodices that quality of meaning that Dewey refers to as an experience.

A story’s dramatic grammar is something that must be taken into account by all members of the cast and crew, for the apprehension of the emotional logic that gives a story its ultimate and most potent meaning is all but impossible to translate into image and sound without respecting the guiding logic that stands within and behind the emotional life of the characters.

One does not create the logic so much as “listen” to it and act upon what one has “heard”… in the unseen and unstated spaces that are the characters’ complexities and contradictions. In this way the logic operating within the domain of a grammar directs every element of the creative unfolding of the story.

Where this underlying logic is not present, or unheeded, the visual and aural images will not reflect or effect the necessary connections or identifications to enable and maintain maximum shareability of experience, thus causing the story to stall and miss its projected target.

Emotional logic implies emotional intelligence on the part of all of the characters. Emotional intelligence demands that we conceive of drama as more than mere cause and effect. The simple cause and effect of primary experience, in which the clouded and inexplicable actions of fortune and providence are visited upon unknowing heads of passive characters, is transformed by drama and supplanted by a logic of means and consequences which introduce the notion of meaningful activity, in which characters are oriented towards some goal or objective that commands their attention and concern as well as ours.

To invest in the characters means to empathise with them - to be involved emotionally in the journey upon which they are on. Empathy is active insofar as it is a reaching out to receive and share – as one – the tribulations, joys, hopes and dreads of the characters whose journey is also our journey, as storytellers, audience and tribe.

The purpose of dramatic filmmaking is to create an experience that is transformative. What is important is to understand that the transformations that occur outside the script are just as important as those occurring inside the script, and the characters that act in the story are existentially related to the characters outside the script, namely the storytellers, the audience and the tribe.

Plot = change, as McKee is fond of reminding us. However, if one ignores the totality of relationships and the changes effected by these relationships as they evolve through dynamic and dramatic interactions in the process of finding the story, one robs both oneself – the filmmaker – and the audience of the reason one is making a film to begin with.


James.brettell said...

"In allowing the audience a space to act (i.e.: co-create the vision out of the subtext) the story or aesthetic experience of said story prodices that quality of meaning that Dewey refers to as an experience. '

This to me is an important point.

In regards to the given statement, could you give a canon of films?

Billy Marshall Stoneking said...

There is a LIST of recommended films - including docos and television series - in the LINKS section of this BLOG.

Chris said...

This is a good article and I agree with what you wrote. An acting teaching I had a few years back described acting as, "struggling to tell the truth". We try to do this with our filmmaking:

Billy said...

Struggling for the truth - yes, I suppose so, in a certain sense - but acting truthfully and struggling to be truthful - are they necessarily compatible? Or?